Renewables a placebo for climate change

Our collective belief that renewable energy is the cure for fossil fuels may well turn out to be more of a placebo than a real cure. Core group member Jack Santa Barbara explains why.

New Zealand's plan to combat climate change hasn’t taken on the rhetoric of the 'Green New Deal', but it certainly has taken on the mythology regarding renewable energy. Renewable energy is at the heart of Green New Deal (GND) approaches across the globe. But like a placebo, the GND may turn out to be more of a sugar pill than we realise.

Placebos are designed not to affect physical symptoms, but to trigger psychological reactions that provide short-term relief.

Our collective belief that renewable energy is the cure for fossil fuels may well turn out to be more of a placebo than a real cure. Here’s why.

Two women standing a beside an energy saving week pull-up banner

Stories we like to believe 

We like what appear to be relatively easy solutions, especially if they involve innovative technologies. That is what worked over the past century, and what we expect. We often accept myth over reality when the myth has appeal and reality is disruptive.

At the start of the fossil fuel era 100 years ago, the story was about a marvellous new energy resource and all it could do for humanity. Warnings of the risks regarding climate impact were made, but ignored. 

We risk making a similar collective error again. Understanding the full story is a lesson to take to heart.

Limited essential materials  

Renewable energy sources are actually not renewable in the way we commonly think. Yes, there is more sun and wind available than we can use. Those are the renewable bits. 

But to concentrate and use those enormous but diffuse energy sources requires large amounts of raw materials, including fossil energy.

These raw materials are limited in supply, and non-renewable. 

Geologists have estimated that the available supply of many minerals required for wind turbines and solar panels is insufficient to build a replacement “renewable” energy infrastructure beyond one or two generations of these devices. 

The technical infrastructure (solar panels, inverters, batteries, etc) all have limited life spans, after which they have to be replaced. But there are not adequate supplies to ensure these replacements.

Some materials can be recycled, thus extending their availability, and innovation will likely extend the durability of these devices. But recycling is never 100 percent, and the extent of innovation is uncertain. And implementing innovations generally takes decades.

Labelling these technologies as “renewable” is a serious misnomer, conveying a durability and false hope, they simply cannot provide.

Production-related emissions

Solar and wind are the most advanced “renewable” technologies and are likely to play a large role in GND programs. But building the technical infrastructure, mining the minerals needed, transporting them, manufacturing the devices, and installing and maintaining them, will all require fossil fuels. 

Calculations of the amount of fossil fuels required for this massive transition indicate these emissions alone would push global temperatures well beyond the internationally agreed 2 degree danger zone. And we would have to do this while reducing emissions in other areas.

These calculations take into account the enormity of the task. Recall that fossil fuels continue to provide well over 85 percent of global energy use. Consider that we would have to construct the equivalent of thousands of nuclear plants to replace this level of fossil fuels in the little time we have.

And we would have to repeat this physical infrastructure replacement every few decades – with increasingly scarce raw materials, and energy, essential for the task.

Lower energy surplus

Another feature of “renewables” that is generally overlooked is their relatively low net energy surplus compared with fossil fuels. Net energy surplus is a basic engineering term that expresses the energy actually available for society to do work, other than produce more energy.

The net energy surplus of renewables is considerably lower than that of historical levels of fossil fuels.

The implications of this for our complex industrial society are enormous. It means that much more of our economic activity going forward is going to involve energy production than previously. Many of the things we now take for granted will no longer be possible. A Great Simplification will be inevitable.

Consider this. Over the past century we have built our complex global society with a fossil fuel net energy surplus of close to 100:1. Only one unit of energy input was required to produce 100 more units of output to use – magic almost. 

Simulations of a 100 percent renewable energy system, integrating their lower net energy surplus, the redundancies and storage required for such an energy system, indicate a net energy surplus of only 5:1.

And even if we were to build such a massive system, its lifespan would only be a few generations at best, due to raw material availability.  

Our way forward

The current trajectory we are on with GND thinking is very likely to turn out as a placebo solution to our energy crisis. It may make us feel better for a while, but not really treat our real world condition – which could well be terminal unless we take appropriate treatment.

Here are some ideas of what appropriate treatment might entail.

Accept reality rather than fairy tales  

We live on a finite planet with finite resources. Fortunately, our finite planet has an abundance of renewable resources which can enrich and sustain us, if we husband them wisely. 

The only realistic Green New Deal is one that is actually green, rather than shiny glass and metal. Relying on things that grow to provide our food, fuel and fibre is what we did in the past, and will be our future.

Understanding that a real green future is the only sustainable one, is likely the most important transition we can make – a mental and emotional transition.

Embrace a lower-energy future

The fossil fuel era must end soon if we are to avoid climate chaos, and so called “renewables” are not up to replacing the magic they provide.

Learning to live with less energy may be less challenging than we fear. We currently waste enormous amounts of energy because it is so cheap and we are careless with it. 

Being more careful how we use energy will help. Gradually, becoming increasingly conservation-minded will help.

Adopting a “wellbeing per joule” perspective will help us consider the priorities for our energy use – what use provides us with the most wellbeing?

Genuinely renewable energy

Prior to fossil fuels we relied on biomass, human and animal power. Along the way we devised many low-tech devices (i.e. not requiring fossil fuels or other high energy inputs) to help us do things. 

We can reclaim and reengineer many of these low-tech devices to provide what we need. Different from the push button devices we now rely on, but nonetheless capable of providing a comfortable and enjoyable existence.

Yes, we will likely have to relinquish some conveniences and speed of doing things. But we will be rewarded with a slower pace of life, a cleaner environment, and the satisfaction of craftpersonship, both as producers and consumers.

We may not want to emulate the African bushman lifestyle, but we might take note of the large amount of leisure time their simple ways allow.

A wellbeing rather than profit focus

We’ve all been caught up in the explosive frenzy that fossil fuels have provided over the past 100 years.  Continuous “progress” and innovation, more and better every year, new whistles and bells; we now even have 'smart toilets' to sit on and contemplate our future. 

The profit motive has driven much of this excess, to the detriment of what actually provides us with life satisfaction and wellbeing. Products and services are marketed to us to provide the short-term hit of a sugar placebo, but without satisfying our needs for meaningful work and social engagement, and leisure time to enjoy friends and family.

“Renewable” energy technologies are the myth we are being sold to replace our fossil fuel addiction.  Embracing a slower, simpler, and wellbeing-focused society is more in line with the biophysical realities we now understand very well. Let’s not ignore them for another 100 years.

Photo credit: Department of Energy and Climate Change